The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Happening.
How did you work with the writer Annie Ernaux to adapt her autobiographical book about her abortion for the screen?
Audrey Diwan: When you adapt a writer that you really like, there are measured risks. I was already at her house when I realized I had to make sure not to betray her. It was a complicated and meaningful first conversation because she tries to reach the truth of her memories. She’s not creating any legends about her past and has a brutal honestly about being the young woman at the center of this story. I told her that I wanted to make the movie a physical experience and try to reach the truth. First, she went through the book chronologically, and I asked her questions about things that were not in the book… social-political context, her family, her friends, and the fear I could feel everywhere, because of the loneliness. You can’t help a girl on that train because if you help her, you might end up in jail as well. Annie told me from the beginning, I’m not going to look at the screenplay like the book, so feel free to adapt it. But if something doesn’t feel right regarding the character or the period, I’ll tell you. It was the best way to adapt a book. I was free but I also knew she would keep me on the right track. I’m so grateful for her.
I never wanted to be shocking, but I wanted to be honest
Why do you think this story is so important to tell right now?
I think it has always been important to tell this story, and that’s because it’s a silent story. It’s the same story in a different way, but it’s the same story forever. If we have to go through that debate once again and discuss abortion once again, I think we should at least know what illegal abortion is. Otherwise we’re debating something we don’t know about. It’s not fair. I didn’t want to make a moral movie, because that can be boring and I don’t want to share my views that way. I love the book because it starts at a very interesting political moment. We don’t see the girl trying to figure out whether or not to have an abortion. It’s a work in progress of a girl trying to get one. It doesn’t make it a moral issue that we should think about, she’s made the decision and has a very strong determination about it. Illegal abortion happens. If we don’t allow women to have legal abortions, they will find a way to do it to themselves. I wanted to show that level of pain, that system, and the context that is given to those women.
The way you build tension throughout the film is incredible. How did you approach that?
In a very organic way, it’s a girl against time. Suspense comes naturally from that premise, by using the DNA of the true story. Then I used a special framing device. The farther we get into the story, the more I reverse the camera to be on Anne’s back, so we are her, walking into the unknown, opening a door that she’s opening and not knowing who will be on the other side. It’s a projection process and it builds the tension because we go more and more into that process. We would often frame the camera very close on her face, so we felt trapped with her, like she was in a jail cell. There are many tools we use with the camera not just to look at Anne, but to be Anne. And we used sound so the audience can hear her breathe. Even when she’s silent, I hoped we could share what she had in mind. My idea was to use silence as cinematic material so the audience could connect with her, as we’re the only ones that know her secret.
As Anne pursues ways to terminate her pregnancy, you don’t shy away from showing anything on screen. How did you prepare to film these very graphic and truthful scenes?
I never wanted to be shocking, but I wanted to be honest. As Annie was in her book. If I want to talk about illegal abortion, I shouldn’t look away. When Annie writes, she doesn’t look away. The whole process of the movie was don’t try to watch her, but try to be her. If you want to be her, you need to consider what she’s going through. I was trying to be in her eyes, what she wants to see, what she doesn’t want to see. Honesty was my drive. Again, I wasn’t trying to be in the middle of moral issues.
To prepare, we worked a lot with [lead actress] Anamaria Vartolomei. We had a lot of time with her because the movie was postponed due to the first lockdown of Covid. I was a bit frustrated at first because I felt I was ready to go on set. But actually, I was not. Anamaria and I began talking and exchanging references to films from Rosetta, from the Dardenne brothers, to Elephant, to Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, to Vagabond. There were many, many different kinds of references we used in order to build a common cinematic language. We found the character and the body, through Zoom actually, and then we got to know each other more and constantly talked about the meaning. What was every moment, what was its purpose? I don’t rehearse that much. But with Covid, we accepted the idea that we might not exactly find what we are looking for, but we can still try and explore. And if we don’t find what we’re looking for, we find something else. It’s the artistic process that I am interested in. We settled in. I think Anamaria never felt at risk. She trusted me and I trusted her and it’s all about working together step by step.